He was a man of uncertain smile. He moved around the royal palace quiet as a cat. He saw everything and tip-toed away, no comment. He bowed a lot. He stepped forth from the curtains when he was asked for; he listened with his uncertain smile while the nobles and the court people praised him for his pictures. He knew they didn’t understand painting; he thanked them for their kind words, their humble servant. Then he disappeared. He was the very king’s companion, as far as it was possible for a normal human to be the side-kick of a Divine King.
Imagine a genius painter who doesn’t paint much. He turns out masterpieces whenever he works but painting is not his chief interest. Painting is fun but there are other things. Even while he paints he thinks of the latest court rumor and his chances at getting a royal appointment as lieutenant butler.
“I can understand that,” you might say. “Velazquez had that one freak talent and painting perfectly was so easy for him he lost interest in it.”
No. You have not seen a genius who wasn’t the slave or the instrument of his genius. Maybe Mark Twain’s great general, the man who could have beaten Napoleon and Hannibal and Alexander all together but who was really a shoemaker in South Carolina because he had never had the opportunity to lead an army—maybe such a man could exist. Though it is hard to believe that his ability to lead men and trick the enemy wouldn’t have found another activity for him in South Carolina to accommodate itself. But a genius-painter is a genius who paints. His genius drives him. That is what genus is: it pushes its way through and it rules.
“But there are other cases,” you say. “Look at Rossini, who wrote great operas and then retired at forty. He went to live in Paris and enjoyed himself for the next forty years.”
Velazquez didn’t give up painting, he didn’t retire. He kept right on painting but busied himself with other things until they pushed painting out. Something else became more important to him: rising in rank in that vicious court of Philip IV and becoming a Knight of Santiago.
A couple of Aesop’s fables come to mind. The dog with a mouthful of meat who swims across the river, sees his reflection, and thinks it is another dog with other meat. That reflected meat looks so good he throws his own away to try to get it. “And so,” says Aesop, “ he is left with neither.” The ending is different in the Velazquez story, of course. He gets Meat Two—becomes Superintendent of the Royal Household; and he triumphantly paints the cross of Santiago on his breast in his last picture (which is also his best) before dying of exhaustion. He got both prizes: lasting fame as one of the world’s greatest painters AND recognition as a pure-blooded Christian butler.
Or the fable about the frog who tried to blow himself up to be as big as the ox—and did blow up. Velazquez exploded after organizing the royal marriage between Philip’s daughter Maria Teresa and Louis XIV of France. Everything was just so. When it was all over, and Velazquez was too, the king thanked him for his services.